I first wrote about this 1951 film version of Richard Wright’s classic and incendiary novel Native Son, with Wright himself as the lead, over a year and half ago, thinking that I would never have to write about it again.
Well, I was wrong; and especially for those of you who live in the Chicagoland area.
That’s because, next month, on Saturday Feb. 2 at 3PM, at The Block Cinema repertory movie theater, which is located on the Northwestern University campus in Evanston, there will be a rare screening of a 35MM print of the film.
But like I said last time, Wright’s seminal novel Native Son, first published in 1940, is one of the most important books ever written about racism and the black experience in America.
It also has been extremely unlucky at the movies. There have been two film versions, and both of them were pretty lousy. There was the 1986 version made for PBS which did get a brief theatrical run, with Victor Love as the lead troubled character Bigger Thomas, and Oprah Winfrey, in one of her first film roles, as his downtrodden suffering mother (“My baby! My baby! Please suh my baby ain’t meant no harm!”…or lines to that effect).
But the earlier 1951 film version, directed by French director Pierre Chanel, is the one that needs to be seen to be believed.
Though the novel is set in Chicago, and obviously well aware that it would be impossible to shoot the film there (with the exception of some travelogue footage that opens the film), as well as to raise the money to make it, the film was completely shot in and around Buenos Aires, Argentina.
However that wouldn’t have been a problem so much, if it wasn’t for the fact that Wright himself played the lead role of Bigger Thomas. No doubt this was a problem for a couple of reasons. At the time Wright was in his early 40’s (though he looked even older) and literally more then twice the age of Thomas in his novel, who is 20.
Even worse… well to put it simply, Wright is AWFUL as an actor.
He couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag. As proof, below is a film clip of Wright’s screen test which speaks for itself. It’s amazing that they thought he was convincing enough to play Thomas. But then the filmmakers probably thought having Wright (who was by then an internationally known acclaimed writer and activist) play the lead role, would be a selling point.
But the film is a disaster, though a fascinating one, nevertheless. Sort of like a car wreck you can’t bare to watch, but you can’t turn your eyes away from. No doubt it’s a sincere effort, but the clumsy, heavy-handed approach (granted it’s a heavy-handed book), and Wright’s amateurish performance, sink the whole endeavor like a stone.
And wait until you take a gander at the “happy times down South” flashback sequence for which there are no words adequate enough to describe.
The film had an unfortunate life after it was made. It was cut from its original 120 minutes length to just under 90 minutes, and has never been restored to its original version. No doubt the missing scenes are long gone and most likely destroyed or thrown away (though reportedly there was a 105 minute version at one time in existence, but no one has ever seen it to my knowledge). And it was, not surprisingly, barely released in the U.S.
But despite all that, it’s still very much worth watching just to see a rare example of forgotten black film history. Just don’t expect a masterpiece. Scale down your expectations… way down.
Here’s Richard Wright’s screen test:
Here are the first five minutes of the movie: